Immigration is Not Political for New Wave of Cuban Professionals in NJ

Union City, N.J., where menus reflect the influence of its Cuban residents. (Photo by Gerardo Romo/EDLP)

An El Diario La Prensa article by Cristina Loboguerrero puts the spotlight on a recent immigration trend in New Jersey: the arrival of young, college-educated Cubans who are looking for economic opportunity, not fleeing the political system. The translation from Spanish is below.

If last century thousands of Cubans arrived in New Jersey cities to escape Fidel Castro’s communism, in the 21st century, a new wave of young professionals is coming to the Garden State to escape poverty on the Caribbean island.

It was the proximity to the city of New York that attracted Leo Romero to North Bergen. Romero is a 31-year-old economist who left the island five years ago after graduating from college.

Leo Romero (Photo by Cristina Loboguerrero/EDLP)

For Romero, the best justification for his exit from Cuba is a saying that he heard for years in school, quoted from the national hero José Martí — “be educated to be free.”

Even though the United States was not his ideal destination after leaving Cuba, it was his wife — who he met while he was working in the tourist area of Varadero — who finally pushed for the decision to move to New Jersey, where Romero has done well as a manager at a popular West New York restaurant while studying to obtain his certificate in business and finance administration.

“I didn’t leave Cuba because of political problems,” explained Romero. “I did it for the same reason the majority of young people do — because of economic problems, to look for a future.”

With a big sigh, he admitted that what he missed most about Cuba was his family, and he said that he had a “very happy” childhood.

A More Well-Prepared Group

Romero is one of the young Cuban professionals who continue to arrive to live north of Hudson County. Despite the perception that the area — which includes Union City, Weehawken, West New York, North Bergen and Guttenberg — is no longer a preferred destination for Cubans, Cuban immigration continues there.

Union City and West New York were two cities chosen by the first Cubans who arrived to the area at the beginning of the 60s, and little by little, attracted to the sewing industry and its proximity to New York, they established themselves, displacing Italian and Irish communities that had dominated.

In the 80s and 90s, Cubans began to settle in other cities of the Garden State, and those that were retiring started to migrate south, to Florida. That led to the establishment of other Latin American and Central American communities, which now dominate the area.

Sociologist Diana Puñales Morejón, of City College of New York, said that the new wave of young people that have arrived in this part of Hudson County, “are better prepared than their predecessors, because not only were they trained in Cuba, many studied in countries that share foreign exchange programs with the island.”

The professor explained: “Among the group of the most well-prepared, there are those that are discovering that New York and New Jersey are expensive states to live in, so they look for positions within their profession, but in states that are a little more economically friendly, cities like Georgia and Atlanta, which have also been growing in recent years.”

Transitory Area

Mario Hernández is another 28-year-old who arrived in Union City four years ago and currently works in a merchandise warehouse around Secaucus while he is getting his marine biology degree validated, after which he plans to move to California.

Every morning, Hernández loves to go for a café con leche and toast at Las Brisas, a restaurant in Union City.

“I like this place because it has a good variety of food and a lot of it is Cuban style,” he said.

While he enjoys his coffee and slowly eats a piece of freshly baked bread, he explains that he came “to Union City because of my uncle.” He had the option of going to Florida with another relative, but, he asked, “what are you going to do?” He didn’t like that state, he said, because “the Cubans there are extremely radical, and when one tells them that they didn’t leave for political reasons, they immediately brand them as a Castro supporter. How ridiculous, man!”

Manuel Suárez, the owner of Las Brisas on Hudson Avenue for the past 23 years, calls Hudson County “a transitory area,” in which recently arrived young people stay only until they are able to validate their university degrees, and then move to other places with better job opportunities.

Amid his restaurant’s aroma of smoked bacon — from the haunch of a pig recently pulled out of the oven — Suárez said that over the years, he has provided waitstaff jobs to many professionals from Cuba.

“In the last decade, all types of professionals have passed through that come from the island, looking for work while they obtain their validation, which is not easy to do and requires a lot of sacrifices,” explained Suárez.

Nostalgia Unites Them

Lucía De Armas, owner of a pizzeria in West New York, N.J. (Photo from EDLP)

A pizzeria, owned by Lucía de Armas, which opened in 2009 and is located on Park Avenue in West New York, has had among its clientele many young people recently arrived from Cuba.

“Young people come to my shop because when my husband and I had the pizzeria in the municipality of La Lisa in Havana, we were famous,” said his wife. “And people miss it, and come here to remember pizza made Cuban-style.”

Figures from the Census Bureau indicated that the Cuban population in Hudson County has dropped in the last decade, losing 5,249 people between 2000 (33,901) and 2010 (28,652). The number of Cuban New Jersey residents overall increased, however, from 77,337 to 83,362 over the same period.

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